Muslim immigration draws converts
Influx of Muslim immigrants attracting Americans to Islam
By Jason Keyser
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Each time the plain, wooden door to the Omar Ibn Kahttab mosque swings open a man from another part of the world walks in.
India, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Morocco. They line up in rows just before the evening prayer and bow under humming fluorescent lights in a small, plain room that used to be a Jehovah's Witnesses hall. Women gather in a separate room.
As a man from Saudi Arabia sings from the Quran on a crackling microphone, two thick-bearded men from yet another part of the world bow and pray. Brian Clouse, 35, and Andrew King, 22, are white Americans from Columbus who converted to Islam a few years ago.
Both men are among the thousands of Americans who convert each year to Islam, a religion that's becoming more mainstream in the United States.
An influx of Muslim immigrants and refugees to central Ohio from places such as Somalia, Sierra Leone, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo in Yugoslavia is attracting an increasing number of Americans -- among them whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics and others -- to explore Islam.
``Americans are accepting Islam at all levels of age and profession,'' said Musa Qutub, president of the Islamic Information Center of America, in Des Plains, a Chicago suburb. ``They are high school students, attorneys, doctors, common workers, you name it. Every day you have newcomers, every day.''
Over the last decade, about 15,000 Muslim refugees have come to Columbus, according to Interfaith Refugee Services. Of the 800 refugees the group has resettled in the city this year, 99.9 percent of them are Muslim. There are about 25,000 Muslims in Columbus. Nationwide there are from 8 to 12 million Muslims. Based on anecdotal accounts and interviews, the refugee service estimates that nationwide there could be as many as 18,000 converts a year, or one convert per mosque per month.
Muslims don't actively seek converts, but a concept called dawah encourages sharing information about their religion with others.
Yvonne Haddad, a professor at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian understanding, said there are two main Muslim ministries -- in prisons and on college campuses -- which differ in approach.
``One is appealing to intellectuals and is focusing on the absurdity of the trinity -- that is the classical way that Muslims undermine Christian thought,'' said Haddad, a Syrian-born Christian. ``The other ministry is focusing on rebuilding the individual and focuses on black and Latino power.''
After the evening prayer at the Omar Ibn Kahttab mosque, one of five mosques in Columbus, Brian Clouse and Andrew King talked with friends. One of them, Mohammad Abdelazeez, a 25-year-old electrical engineering student from Egypt, said he learns a lot from converts like Clouse and King.
``Most converts are better Muslims than the people who were born Muslim,'' he said. ``You can learn a lot from them when they look at what's in your hands as a precious gift. And I realize that they've spent a long time searching for truth; and I realize that it's been in my hands.''
Andrew King and his wife converted to Islam two years ago. Both were strong believers in Christianity. But as they further explored Christianity, both ended up with more questions than answers.
King began studying about other religions, talking with rabbis and reading books on Buddhism. He also stumbled upon a Web page about Islam.
``I didn't even think to consider Islam. I had thought Islam was about how to use an AK-47,'' he said, laughing. But as he read about the religion, King questioned the stereotypes and began to feel that he had found what he was searching for.
``It sounded right,'' he said. ``It felt right, that there was only one God. It was something easy to accept mentally.'' While he was still a student at Ohio State University he began talking with Muslim students and learning more about the religion.
After King converted to Islam he began teaching English to Muslim refugees and helped run an after-school program for their children.
Working with Muslim-born newcomers, he said, helps strengthen his connection to the religion.
He remembers an 8-year-old Somali boy who lived near him. The boy had memorized the longest chapter of the Quran, ``The Cow.'' ``That gives me motivation to work harder at the religion,'' King said.
King is among a growing number of American converts who are working to help the community of Muslim refugees.
Ramadan Abdullah Badi Islam, 46, runs a safe house for Muslim women and children who are fleeing domestic abuse or are searching for housing. He is a black American who in 1992 converted to Sunni Islam, the religion's largest sect.
The smell of cooking tomatoes filled the second floor of Al-Maun, the safe house on the city's east side. A Somali woman -- her head covered by a blue scarf -- was cooking food and feeding her baby. She's been staying at Al-Maun for nearly three months.
Soon after Islam converted, he began working with ex-offenders, ex- addicts and battered women.
``I found there were a lot of Muslim women and children caught up in the mix,'' he said. ``That to me was just devastating, that our sisters and children had to turn to nonbelievers for support.''
So, Islam, who also runs a food pantry, repaired a burned out building that now gives shelter and food to as many as 10 small families at a time.
Islam speaks passionately about his religion. His first contact with the faith was as a teen-ager in the Nation of Islam.
``The Nation of Islam taught me strict discipline,'' he said. ``The root of the teaching was to dignify yourself. As a young black man in 1969, I had a lot to be desired. The Nation of Islam was the initial wake up call for blacks who are practicing Islam now.''
Over the years, he drifted away from the group, pushed away in part by rhetoric that sought to divide the races. He said it was his conversion to Sunni Islam that eventually cleaned up his life.
Islam went from mosque to mosque and talked with Muslims from different backgrounds, learning what he could.
Many American converts are learning about Islam from Muslim immigrants and are visiting mosques and contacting Muslim groups to ask questions.
Nicol Ghazi, a 33-year-old woman who was raised Jewish, grew up in Toledo, a city with a large Muslim community.
``I kept coming into contact with Muslims over and over again. I think that's how my conversion came about,'' she said. ``I had a lot of respect for the Muslims I met and that drew me toward the religion.''
Women seem to be converting to Islam in larger numbers than men, though the perception that Islam oppresses women can be a major hurdle.
Ghazi said that the oppression of women in some Muslim societies is cultural, not religious.
``Islam is liberating,'' she said. ``It recognizes women in a legal sense; you can sign a contract, own property. You have the right to refuse a marriage proposal. You have a right to determine your own fate so to speak. You can hold official positions.''
Ghazi said these rights don't sound extraordinary these days, but at the time of Islam's birth in the seventh century they were unheard of.
As she sat in her living room, a call to prayer sounded from a mosque-shaped alarm clock. Five times a day it plays a recording of someone singing from the Quran. Her husband's parents, who live in England, bought the clock at Harrod's department store.
Ghazi, who now lives in Columbus, became a Muslim three years ago, after meeting and becoming friends with Muslim women, including an Algerian.
``She would read -- chant -- the Quran in Arabic. She had a beautiful voice and a talent for explaining things,'' she said.
Ghazi married a man from Pakistan a year ago and has just given birth to twins -- a boy, Hamza, and a girl, Hana. She said 10 years ago she would have thought twice about giving her children Muslim names that might have made them the target of teasing or harassment.
``Now people are more comfortable seeing more cultures here,'' she said. ``Islam is more mainstream.'' In fact, Ghazi says, sometimes it seems women who were born Muslim are more curious about her than the Americans who hardly ``bat an eye'' at her Muslim dress.
Zakiyah Al-Husaam, 41, who is from Panama, said she and her husband, Abdul Kariym, who is a black American, are sometimes mistaken for African Muslims.
The two, who were Christian, met in a class about Islam in Panama, where Abdul Kariym served in the U.S. Army. They both converted to Islam in 1982, before moving to the United States and later to Columbus. Both said that Islam had answers for them that Christianity didn't.
They lived in Saudi Arabia from 1995-97, where Abdul Kariym translated telecommunications software into Arabic. He said the Saudis admired American Muslims and converts.
``They would tell me, 'You people in America are the real Muslims today.'''
He said the role of American converts should be to bring the message of Islam to America and to strengthen the conviction of Muslim-born immigrants.
``We are showing that this religion has no boundaries,'' he said. ``The second generation of Muslim immigrants are learning what Islam is from blacks, whites and Hispanics.''